~~~Sooner or later I was going to need to write about the total goat screw on ice that is the current situation regarding the future of education and non-profit activity in Second Life. Most of you know that I have a great deal of enthusiasm for the various manifestations of learning that take place in SL, but I have never been impressed by the "Education" that goes on in-world. And I am not alone in that holding that point of view. For example, one of my academic friends who has been heavily involved in virtual educational projects--and wound up being extremely frustrated in the process--recently summed up her perspective on things with the statement "education in Second Life has not lived up to its potential."
She puts it so much more politely than I tend to, but I think we have a similar degree of dissatisfaction with the quality and outcomes we're seeing from many education projects in SL.
Nonetheless, I initially was somewhat disappointed when Linden lab made its recent announcement that they would be ending the 50% discount for education and non-profit customers. Even though I hold the personal opinion that the majority of educational projects in SL are mediocrities at best and dismal failures at worst, I still felt that it was important for the Labsters to continue to provide some kind of encouragement to people who are trying to use the platform for something more than pixel pokin'. Why? Well, mostly because I have really enjoyed learning things in Second Life, and I hope that other people will be open to the idea of making that happen. As my frustrated professor friend was pointing out, the educational potential of the platform is in fact immense and still largely unrealized.
Simply put, it didn't make a great deal of sense to me that LL had made this decision. I really hoped there was some kind of rational reasoning behind it...because that's just the kind of spit-dribbling, wild-eyed optimist that I am. So, I very much wanted to talk to someone about what had happened, but unfortunately, the people I used to talk to--such as Tom Hale and Claudia Linden--ain't around no more. By the way, if you will indulge me in going off on a tangent, I would like to state for the record right now that when I think about the fact that hard-working, intelligent people like Claudia have been let go, and a feckless, slack-jawed, incompetent like Wallace Linden is still there, I am utterly fucking gobsmacked. Do they somehow think that this brainless donkey turd of a wally has some special kind of understanding of how to communicate with the social user segment of SL's customer base, or is he simply blowing somebody in HR?
And please don't tell me that I might gain some insight into what is going on by looking at what the former Pathfinder Linden has to say. Totally aside from the fact that I have yet to meet any serious educator who actually derived any real practical benefit from trying to work with Pathfinder (please let me know if you have a verifiable example of something that would help me revise my view of that self absorbed, self-promoting douche), I can only conclude that Pathfinder was a naive simpleton who didn't realize that something like this was going to happen to the customers he brought in, OR he was aware and just conveniently neglected to mention that SL was likely to change it's policies towards educators. Consequently, I don't put much stock in his self-righteous pronouncements at this stage and wish he would just pretty much shut the fuck up.
But I digress.
The fact was, I hoped I could talk to someone and get a reasonable explanation from LL, but that wasn't going to happen. So all I can offer is some speculation based on what I have seen, especially now that Linden lab has kinda sorta backtracked and is going to phase out the discount over a little longer period of time.
Here's my thought: I wonder if the labsters had initially thought of the education/non-profit discount as a temporary incentive--get the teachy, feel-good folks in up front on the cheap so they could learn first-hand what the platform could be used for. It could also have been an opportunity for the creative educators to get something started that they could then show doubtful administrators, and be able to justify continuing their experiments.
Hey, if that was the case, I could really understand the whole thing. It would make sense to me. Plenty of companies give you an introductory rate to get you hooked on using their product: it is a standard rational type of business strategy. It's just that if this was what LL was doing, they didn't do a terribly good job of communicating about it with their customers, or their own staff people in certain areas for that matter. And they're still not communicating very well about it. But hey that's what they do--it's not like we should expect them to suddenly start doing communication right--not when they have a wally like Wally "managing conversations."
Ok...so let's assume that this was the strategy: get the educators in and doing cool stuff, and then eventually phase out the discount that encouraged them to start. Unfortunately, what happened was that the discount seems in many cases to have become something that enabled mediocre and failed projects to live on well beyond the point at which plugs should have been pulled. So maybe that's one of the silver linings in this particular ongoing chimp-and-weasel clusterfuck. People who should have looked at cutting back on their sim expenditures or moving to alternate grids long before this, will now be motivated to think more carefully about where they are going and what the hell they are doing. Plenty of very bright people have already made their moves (Heritage Key being one of the highest quality and possibly most successful examples)...
So boys and girls, now there's no excuse for other groups and institutions to not do the same. And yes, in many cases, when some of these institutions start asking themselves the hard question, the answer is going to be "screw it--the virtual world isn't ready for us and/or we're not ready for it." But that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes the best thing you learn from an experiment is what doesn't work.
The ironic thing to me, as I reflected on this, was that this whole mess doesn't affect many great places in SL because the non-profit discount didn't apply to some of the best learning/teaching environments I have experienced in SL. Lots of places have done great stuff, but because the people putting the project together didn't happen to be associated with a school or have a 501(c)(3) letter from Uncle Sugar, they had to pay full price all along.
So does that mean that with the change in pricing, it is going to make things more of a level playing field for educational, informational and cultural projects regardless of who is behind the effort? No, it's just going to mean that life is going to be equally unfair. But--and I think this is the good part--it may also mean that schools and non-profits that do still see the potential in experimenting on SL will think really goddamn carefully about what they are doing, who will be doing it, and what outcomes they hope to achieve, before they move ahead or continue with a project.
While that is probably not the pay-off that LL was expecting or looking for with this pricing change, I think you can argue that it'll be a good thing if it does work out this way with fewer--but potentially better--education projects taking place on the platform. Hey, like Papaw used to say, even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then.